Where were you when you heard the news? Chances are you won’t soon forget.
I was leaning against the main bar at Rockwell VT on Vermont and Hollywood in Los Feliz when I happened to check my phone. There was a tweet from my friend @bronze_muse: “RIP Whitney Houston. What the heck!?”
This was followed immediately by a Tweet from @keithboykin: “Oh my God, I can’t believe the news about Whitney Houston!”
It was a Jacksonesque moment of disbelief.
I did a quick Google search on my Blackberry. It had already been reported on abcnews.com, TMZ (which first reported Jackson’s death in late June 2009) and already updated on the ever-reliable Wikipedia where I confirmed Heath Ledger’s unexpected death in early 2008.
Even as I started telling people around me, I still couldn’t believe it.
I left Rockwell a short time later and headed over to the Blue Boar at Cahuenga and Selma. I called my best friend Jasper – a longtime diehard fan of Houston’s. Certain that he’d be fit to be tied, I wanted to make sure he was alright. He was bowling with his sister.
We all grieve in our own way.
Drinks at the Boar with my friend Nick distracted me from all things Houston for a few hours. But as I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard toward my apartment later that night, Houston’s music started to fill my head and I started to weep softly to myself.
I wasn’t so much mourning the loss of life as much as I was grieving over the loss of her incredible voice. A part of me was angry at Houston for squandering such a gift, while another part of me was honoring her for sharing it with us in the first place.
I decided long ago that we'd heard the last of that gift – by my measure with The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack, but I held on to a glimmer of hope (particularly in anticipation of what turned out to be her final release in 2009) that through some physiological miracle, there was one more power ballad in her.
Perhaps there was. Perhaps there was not. All we can do is assume. It may not have been on the level of “I Will Always Love You”, her vocal peak, but it would have surprised us all given the damage we have heard had been done to her vocal cords.
I’m relieved that much of the press and most of the response to her death has been focused on her amazing career, her tremendous talent, her accomplishments and her iconic status in the music world as opposed to her decline over the last decade or so.
Still, there have been comments about how she messed up her own life and that no one should feel sorry for her.
On a certain level, there is some validity to that. It’s insensitive but it’s true. Some things she has done to herself. There was the infamous “crack is whack” interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002. The following year, there was the phone call into the Wendy Williams radio show on WBLS in New York. And in 2005, her agreeing to do the Being Bobby Brown reality show proved to be a head-shaker, an eyebrow-raiser and fodder for Joel McHale’s The Soup on E!
Her death, premature by many standards, makes you wonder what is it about seemingly having it all that leads to such an end?
Reality show aside, no one TRULY knows what went on behind closed doors or inside the mind of Houston herself. Still, one has to wonder what was too much or not enough about being blessed with the greatest voice, achieving the greatest success, receiving the highest accolades and despite the off-stage antics, having the most profound respect and admiration of peers, fans and even mentors. I don’t have a doubt in my mind that she understood all of this, but it didn't seem to be a match for whatever it was that took precedence over it in her private life.
Some want to blame her ex-husband Bobby Brown. Others say she was a grown woman who made her own decisions. That doesn't matter. My friend @Thalia_Kat tweeted it best when she asked “how many more people must we lose before the desperate need for compassionate and effective…treatment is noticed and addressed?”
Therein lies the real issue. That, and feeling the need to address it. One can’t say she didn’t try – or at least made it appear that she was trying. We don’t know.
What we do know is that an incredible body of work has been left to us. It's surprising to me that in 25 years of recording, she only released six albums (not including compilations and soundtracks).
But that was all that we needed for such classics as “How Will I Know”, “Didn’t We Almost Have it All”, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, “Saving All My Love for You” and “So Emotional” and “The Greatest Love of All” -- those from just her first two releases.
Her voice will always be one to which all others will always be compared. We will marvel forevermore at how effortlessly she could petit jete over even the highest of notes. Though I can’t help listening to later Whitney’s vocals and compare it to early Whitney’s vocals, even later Whitney could dance circles around many of today’s chart toppers if she wanted to -- if she needed to, which she probably didn’t.
She was Whitney – a singer, artist and entertainer who, through longevity and unimaginable success, EARNED the right to be referred to by first name only.
Her passing is sad, but it doesn’t feel tragic. I see it more as a walking away. Let the new pop princesses have the stage. She's done her thing and did it better than most of them ever will. Even if her voice was indeed gone, what else did she need to prove to anyone? The proof is Whitney Houston, Whitney, I’m Your Baby Tonight, The Bodyguard soundtrack, the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack, My Love is Your Love and even Just Whitney and I Look to You.
And of course, let’s not forget her storied performance of the National Anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl.
My personal favorite Whitney Houston moment in time is when she swept the 1994 American Music Awards with seven wins out of eight nominations plus a special Award of Merit. At one point, presenter Will Smith comes out and welcomes everyone to what he called the “The Whitney Houston Show”. The moment wasn't so much about her as it was about her impact.
But now the concert is over.
I’m imagining thunderous applause and a well-deserved standing ovation as Whitney walks away from the microphone and heads toward the back of the stage. She turns around one last time and takes a bow. With tears of gratitude in her eyes, she takes a breath, waves and blows us all a kiss as the curtain comes down for the final time.
Then we move on. We don't forget, but we move on as life tends to do. Now all eyes are turned to Jennifer Hudson, Whitney’s heir apparent, who has now been passed the baton of top power vocalist. In her brief and understated Grammy tribute last night, she once again lets us know that she’s up for the daunting task.
I set up this playlist on my iTunes. It doesn’t encompass as much of her discography career as I thought when I put it together, but it’s a great representation of the best of Whitney Houston for me:
“Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, Whitney - 1987
“The Greatest Love of All”, Whitney Houston - 1985
“He’s All Over Me”, The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack - 1996
“Hold On, Help is On the Way”, The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack - 1996
“How Will I Know”, Whitney Houston - 1985
“I’m Every Woman”, The Bodyguard soundtrack - 1992 (what can I say? it's a fun song and she sang the hell out of it.)
“I Believe in You and Me”, The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack - 1996
“I Go to the Rock”, The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack - 1996
“I Have Nothing”, The Bodyguard soundtrack - 1992
“I Look to You”, I Look to You - 2009
“I Love the Lord”, The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack - 1992
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, Whitney - 1987
“I Will Always Love You”, The Bodyguard soundtrack - 1992
“Joy”, The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack - 1996
“Joy to the World”, The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack - 1996
“One Moment in Time”, 1988 Summer Olympics Album - 1988
“Queen of the Night”, The Bodyguard soundtrack - 1996
“Run to You”, The Bodyguard soundtrack - 1996
“Saving All My Love for You”, Whitney Houston - 1985
“So Emotional”, Whitney - 1987
“Who Would Imagine a King”, The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack - 1996
“You Light Up My Life", Just Whitney - 2002
This isn’t going to make many people’s list of top Whitney performances but her appearance in this 1995 AT&T “True Voice” commercial is on mine:
Photo taken from Hypebeast.
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